Working With Girls in Youth Work

Girls work within youth work has a long tradition within the UK- ranging from early pioneers such as Lily Montagu working in the East End of London through second wave influenced feminist youth work in the late 1970s and 1980s to contemporary practice. Whilst the past decade has generally seen a decline in feminist influenced single-sex work, more recently this tradition of feminist youth work within UK has begun to be reinvigorated by practitioners, with a flurry of ‘girls work’ conferences and projects.

Although much youth work practice within a UK context has often been perceived to be work specifically aimed at working class young men, there are long traditions of single-sex work with girls and young women. From 1970s onwards there was a growing interest in the Women’s Movement in youth work practice, and single sex work with girls with a specific second wave feminist sensibility grew.

Within this realm there was a flowering of girls work with a focus on a women’s consciousness raising and a range of activities such as self-defence, manual trades and discussion groups. The interest and funding in this work ebbed in the 1990s, with government funding focusing on the perceived deficiencies in girls rather than an explicitly feminist practice. The remnants of girls work practice has much in common with the early pre First World War approach to girls work. In particular, it remains based around moralising discourses, for example, with an emphasis on reproductive health, fertility, sexuality and how to be a ‘better’ mother without linking to wider politics of gender and class. So many girls work practices within UK youth work are about reproducing normative heterosexual femininities rather than taking a politicised, dialogic approach. For example, targeting young women to prevent teenage pregnancy, rather than a wider remit exploring gender equality and a feminist political education.

On the central questions of essentialism, and the political meanings and implications of youth work, feminist workers of the 1970s and 1980s singularly failed to influence generic practice. What they did achieve, was an extension of the scope of youth work to acknowledge there was some specialist work needed to work with girls. (Spence, 2006, p 258)

In recent years there has been somewhat of a reawakening of feminist youth work practice. Much have this work has remained framed within a second wave feminist approach of earlier decades, with approaches that encourage intergenerational dialogue and an explicit feminist engagement. Yet this arguably often remains a marginal practice within wider girls work, and funding for youth practice generally focuses on engaging young men. However, some of the traditional youth organisations with roots in the 19th century, such as the Girl Guides and YWCA in the UK (Now Platform 51), have begun to take a more campaigning a politicised agenda towards encompassing a loosely liberal feminist approach. Such campaigns in recent years have included body image, wider career opportunities, political engagement, education, employment and training.

In common with gender issues in schooling, there remains a need to argue for funding and space for single sex work with girls and young women within youth work practice. Models of youth development and youth work are based on a deficit model of youth. Funding regimes within this climate focus on ‘fixing’ troubled and troubling youth. Wider anxieties about boys’ achievement, and (male) youth offending, ‘risky’ behavior and transitions into adulthood frame much of the funding and the practice. This often involves drawing three stereotypes of youth, those of thugs, users and victims. Within this trinity, the majority of political emphasis and the bulk of the limited funding is targeted at dealing with the perceived problematic behavior and educational deficiencies of working class young men. The remaining limited funding for work with young women, emerges around their perceived potential victimhood, particularly those of early pregnancy, precocious sexuality and low self esteem. There is little policy or fiscal interest to engage with a deeper politicised agenda focusing on empowerment, nor one, which explores gender equity, or dialogic work interrogating heteronormative gender discourses within generic youth services.

Practical ideas for working with girls

1. Do a gender audit in your school or youth work project: How are activities and spaces gendered? Who uses what spaces in what context? Who leads the sessions and how does this shape the kinds of activities young women participate in? How might you provide more physical space for young women within your setting?

2. Consider the agendas behind existing single sex provision: Is it about challenging gender equality or working with young women because they are perceived as part of a ‘problem’ category? How might you imagine doing this work differently?

3. Set up a working group with other sympathetic workers, or ask for it to be a specific training agenda or discussed within area youth work meetings. Are there any specific funds that might be used for supporting work of this kind?

4. Explore the range of resources and materials on websites. Feministwebs includes downloadable resources for issue based work on body image, sexuality and gender identity amongst others.

Useful links

Work of Lily Montagu – pioneer in youth work

Work of Maude Stanley in 19th Century Soho

Feministwebs:“This is an online ‘women and girls work space’ that acts as both an archive and a resource for practitioners, volunteers and young women involved in youth and community work with young women. Our bias is toward work which encourages participation and is from a perspective that focuses on women’s rights and experiences”. There are many excellent resources on this website for working with girls, in schools and youth groups/clubs. Issues include: gender audits, introducing feminism, language and definitions etc.

News and resources from YWCA working with young women in the UK

International Women’s Tribune Centre

Further Reading

Batsleer, J. R. (2003) Practices of friendship: youth work and feminist activism in Manchester. In Jeffs, T. and  Gilchrist, R. (eds) Architects of change: studies in the history of youth and community work. Leicester, Youth Work Press.

Jeffs,  T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The problem of “youth” for youth work’, Youth and Policy 62, 45-66.

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2002) ‘Youth work: an introduction‘, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education.

Spence, J. (2006) Working with girls and young women: a broken history. In  R. Gilchrist, T. Jeffs & J. Spence (eds) Drawing on the Past: Essays in the History of Communty and Youth Work. Leicester, National Youth Agency.

Spence, J. (2010) Collecting women’s lives: The challenge of feminism in UK Youth Work in the 1970s and 80s. Women’s History Review, 19, 1, 159-176.


Page author: Fin Cullen

Updated: 15th January 2013

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